Karl Sakas is an Agency Consultant and Executive Coach at Sakas & Company where he consults with, coaches, and trains marketing agency owners struggling with various challenges related to their teams, their clients, and their services. His focus? To guide agency owners through risky decision-making, help them overcome constraints, enable them to grow profitably to the next level, and to make them “better bosses.”
Karl has a strong agency operations background and has worked with agencies around the world. His team is often called in when an agency:
In this interview, Karl identifies six agency “roles”:
In this interview, Karl recommends that overwhelmed agency owners offload tasks in a prescribed order (subject to agency-owner preferences);
Karl notes that there is a big difference between delegation and abdication. He warns, “Don’t just dump everything on someone and expect them to figure it all out.” The agency owner has to train these “replacements” and help them build the qualification process, so prospective clients, now vetted and talking with the agency owner, will be more ready to “sign on the line.”
In 2016, Karl founded a CMOs-only mastermind group, where he guides non-client CMOs through their challenges. He compiles the data he gathers from these CMOs into anonymized insights which he passes on to his agency clients . . . to help them improve.
Karl has built a ranking tool to help agencies assess current and future client value, clarify “fit,” and optimize client satisfaction and agency profitability. He will be running an “Ask Me Anything” session at HubSpot Inbound 2021, sharing scripts for difficult client conversations, talking about commitment to warmth and competence decision-making, and presenting a Reason, Options, Choose (ROC) negotiation framework that guides agency/client conflicts through chosen options toward mutually satisfactory solutions.
Karl can be reached on his agency’s website at: sakasandcompany.com, where he offers free newsletters and articles. Transcript Follows:
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Karl Sakas, who is an Agency Consultant and Executive Coach at Sakas & Company based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Welcome to the podcast, Karl.
KARL: Rob, great to be here.
ROB: Excellent to have you here. This is a part of our annual Inbound series of podcasts. Karl, you’ll be speaking at Inbound, and we’ll get to that in a moment. But why don’t you start off by telling us about Sakas & Company and what it is that you all do?
KARL: Through Sakas & Company, I help owners of marketing agencies grow more profitably. That spans a range of areas. I’ve worked with agencies all over the world, every inhabited continent, around dealing with growing pains around getting to the next level, whatever that might be for each agency owner or owners. I come from an agency operations background. I actually started in digital marketing as a freelance web designer in high school back in the days of dial-up. Since then, I’ve been an Agency Project Manager, Director of Client Services, Director of Operations. This is my third business since high school, and I’m a fourth generation entrepreneur.
The work that I do, I love that I’m helping agency owners who often are in over their head and they’re struggling with different challenges around how to grow, how to grow profitably, major decisions related to their team and their clients and their services. I love being able to help them out. Several clients call me their agency therapist. Let me clarify, I’m not an actual therapist. Everyone ideally has an actual therapist, but when it comes to their agency, I love helping people out – helping them, as one client put it, “calm the chaos.”
ROB: When you mention focusing on growth, what I hear is where a lot of agencies end up feeling stuck – one of the transition points; you’ve probably seen a couple – is they hit a lid in one way or another in terms of founder sales.
ROB: Is that where people often end up turning to you, in that area?
KARL: Sometimes. In that case, thinking of founder sales, often it is the founder’s network. Their network lasts maybe a year or two into the business; maybe it lasts three or four years. But eventually it’s like, “uh-oh” – they’ve realized that if their network is going to buy, they’ve bought. It’s funny; the marketing agency needs to do its own marketing. There’s a shoemaker’s kids problem.
Sometimes people reach out. Other times, and more often, given my operations background, they’ll reach out when they are overwhelmed by new growth opportunities. They’ve got more leads than they can deal with. Their salesperson or salespeople are having trouble keeping up, whether the owner is doing sales or otherwise. Often I’m helping on sales process. Given my background as a PM, helping with onboarding, figuring out their onboarding process, both for team members and for clients, how to sort out delivery running smoothly, and figuring out how to build long-term relationships.
All of my consulting, coaching, and training is exclusively with agencies. I don’t work with any brand side clients. But through a marketing association, in 2016 I founded a CMOs-only mastermind group. No agencies allowed. Through that, I’m helping the CMOs, who are not my clients, through some of their challenges and I get them together. I’m able to share anonymized insights from that to help agencies do a better job, like the CMOs keep talking about revenue attribution through agency, because otherwise you’re going to lose your clients to someone who is.
ROB: That makes complete sense. In the middle of that, you mentioned process. Does process tend to be one of those Kryptonites and Waterloos of agencies in general? It seems like you have this double effect. First of all, you have someone who has deliberately opted out of some of the structured environments they could work in in a big corporation. Then you combine that, often, with a free-spirited and creative nature to building the agency, which may not turn to process as its first instinct to solve problems.
KARL: That is a great point. It varies by agency, but part of my intake process if someone reaches out for my help, I’ll ask why they started their agency and how things have turned out compared to what they expected. A very common thread – not for everyone, but very common – is they were working at an agency and they’re like, “I can do this better.” Or as one agency owner put it, “If the CEO is going to be a moron, I want to be the moron.” Sort of the “I could do it better.”
The problem is that people often find when they are now in charge, they have some new empathy for their former boss. When they saw the boss wasn’t always making the best decisions or what have you, now they realize what the boss was going through, juggling all of these different stakeholders, clients, team members, suppliers, and others, and now they often don’t have a sounding board. Sometimes if they have a business partner, they’ve got their business partner as a sounding board, “Is this normal?” Sometimes their romantic partner, who sometimes is also the business partner, which adds its own layer of complications. Bu they’re both in the same situation.
One of my coaching clients said that our coaching work helped him free up time in his therapy sessions because he wasn’t having to tell his therapist all about his agency challenges – which the therapist couldn’t really help with. I mean, in pieces, but not “Here are the best practices. Let’s customize them to you.”
ROB: Right, the therapist can help you with the psychology of being in the role, but it doesn’t necessarily get you to what’s effective for business. I’m sure in some cases when it’s a romantic partnership that are also business partners, you are kind of in a therapist role at times.
When we get to scaling past this founder or you have too much business coming in even for the people who are in the sales role, the first lever I see people pull, often, when they get capped out on sales is they’ll just go hire salespeople. They’ll hire one or two and send them into the world and tell them to go sell things. I think it usually doesn’t turn out too well when that’s the plan.
KARL: By accident, that approach sometimes accidentally works. But usually not.
ROB: Sometimes you’re scaling the founder-led sales a little bit and sometimes you’re distributing. How do you processize and get it so that you have – I think an enemy sometimes in sales is authenticity. You really have to get the right people at least to reflect your own agency’s brand in that conversation.
KARL: It starts by understanding, should you even outsource sales or something else? In my work, I’ve identified six agency roles. You’ve got account management (keep the clients happy, sell them more work); project management (get the work done smoothly and profitably); you’ve got your subject matter experts (depending on your agency’s services, those are your designers, developers, writers, analysts, that kind of thing), who are primarily focusing on doing their craft all day long; you’ve got strategists, who are sort of like a super subject matter expert (they have broader experience, they tend to have more experience in general, they tend to be fairly client-facing); and then the last two, you’ve got biz dev, which is really marketing, sales, and partnerships; and then you’ve got support, which is operations and leadership, keeping things running smoothly.
When it comes to getting things off your plate as an agency owner, my recommendation is to follow roughly this order, depending on your preferences.
First thing to get off your plate: the SME work. If you are the owner of the agency and you are still in the client execution tools all day long, you probably should outsource that to someone else – maybe initially freelancers, eventually hiring people full-time, that kind of thing. Get that off your plate, the things that are more visible to your clients.
The next thing to do probably is project management, the mostly internal coordination, though PMs are indeed client-facing. Then you may want to do account management – not being the first person clients call every single time they need something.
And then the question becomes – and this is the piece to your question of getting sales off your plate – depending on your preferences, you might choose to hire someone to help with sales while you keep doing client strategy, or maybe the other way. You want to do client strategy, you don’t want to do sales. There is an in-the-middle option, which is maybe you continue as the closer, you’re closing the deal, but someone else on your team is doing the qualifying. If this were a really large sales organization, that would be a business development representative.
The good news is they don’t need to be as much of an expert as you are, which means that you can hire them for less than you would hire a clone of yourself. And if they do their job and you help them build process – they’re not going to magically know who’s qualified or not – you ultimately will find yourself on the phone solely with qualified, or at least initially qualified, prospects.
On the other hand, if you like doing all the conversations but you’ve outsourced everything else, okay. Do what you want to do, but if you’re doing something that you’d rather not do – as the owner of an agency, you’re in a lucky spot. Most people out in the world don’t get to choose what they do day to day. It’s your business. But you do need to take some steps to make it happen rather than just – instead of delegating, sometimes people will abdicate. Don’t just dump everything on someone and expect them to figure it all out.
ROB: Yeah, I hear two traps in there that are pretty common. One is the abdication. Two is really, a lot of people get into the business not to build a business, but because they enjoy the delivery work.
KARL: Yes. And if that’s what you love most, you need someone on your team doing the rest, doing the support work, operations and leadership, doing the biz dev work, marketing, sales, and partnerships, and so on. But it is worth considering. Occasionally, out of the over 400 clients I’ve worked with in 36 countries, some of the clients conclude they don’t like running an agency. Sometimes they don’t like the sales; other times they don’t like managing people. And there are things you can do to delegate aspects of management, though it’s not cheap. You’re hiring someone with a six-figure salary, profit-sharing, and potentially some sort of equity to take over for you if you don’t love doing that.
But sometimes people conclude they don’t want to run an agency because they want to do the craft, primarily, and in that case, I call that shifting to the “super consultant” model. They might have one administrative person helping them stay on track, but their job is to do consulting, do their craft, whether it’s SEO or marketing strategy or PR or something else. If you want to do your favorite craft all day long, you probably should not be an agency owner.
ROB: And that might take us a little bit into even your own journey. You were leading in agencies, building a career. There were obviously plenty of places you could’ve gone from there, but you’ve got a much more focused scope of services now. How did you come to this conclusion for yourself of how you wanted to help agencies that maybe wasn’t managing a bunch of delivery?
KARL: Thinking about the moving parts, I realized after working for one agency and then another, while I was at the second agency, there was this opportunity. Agency owners typically start the agency because they love the work. At my first agency, there were three founders; one loved design, another loved SEO, another loved development. At the second agency, it was development and marketing strategy.
The challenge is, suddenly you start an agency, you’re now a business owner. You’re dealing with hiring and firing and office supplies, or making sure someone bought the office supplies so you don’t run out, that kind of thing. Often that’s not as much fun.
In my case, coming from an operations background, I was usually doing the things the owners didn’t like doing. For instance, one of my first jobs as a Director of Client Services at an agency – I think they had not mentioned this as part of the hiring process – learned in the first week that I would be telling all of the clients that our prices had gone up about 30%. We’d been at an old rate for a long time. And you know what? Because I had been working with clients as a web designer in the days of dial-up and otherwise, it worked. Out of all of our retainer clients, all but one renewed at the new rate, and the one that didn’t continued working on a project basis – and also was kind of a difficult client anyway, so that maybe wasn’t terrible.
But they delegated that to me and I got it done. Everything down to figuring out health insurance plan options. So operations is often doing stuff the owners don’t want – and I have some clients where the owners do do operations, but that gets into a division of labor.
But I realized there was this opportunity. Owners often don’t love running the business smoothly, but if you don’t do that, you’re going to go out of business. Someone has to pay attention to that. In my case, business was just normal. My parents are both career army officers, and as they retired and after they retired, they started a small rental property management business and they put the kids to work. I’m the oldest of five, and starting in elementary school I was helping with things like cleanouts during tenant turnover and things like that. So I would see them negotiating with various stakeholders – with tenants, with suppliers and so on. Talking about business was normal.
By high school, I was running the web design and technology consulting business that I built solely by a mix of referral and word-of-mouth in the Washington, D.C. area. I was later a business major in college. And it even goes back further than that. One of my grandfathers was a business professor for 47 years and a management consultant, so I’d hear stories focusing on organizational behavior about working with big companies, like GE and Caterpillar and Nestle, helping them work more effectively with their employees.
There’s a big theme around that today. In a sense, my secret mission is to make agency owners better bosses. Having been an employee at one agency and then another, agency life is often this rollercoaster. If you’re the owner, you’re at least in charge of controlling aspects of the rollercoaster, but if you’re an employee, there are limits. So part of my goal is, yes, make life better for agency owners, help them secure what is typically their number one or number two financial asset, but also make things more stable, make work better for their employees.
So I’m helping the owners and their families; I’m helping, more indirectly, agency employees and their families. This is thousands and thousands of people all over the world.
ROB: It sounds rewarding to you personally on several levels, up against your own values. You mentioned something in that, and I think it’s a good time to transition. You were talking about a client that wasn’t such a good client. What you’re speaking on – you’ll be on a virtual stage at Inbound. Maybe next year we can get back to a real stage. You have an “Ask Me Anything” session, so people are just going to throw random things at you. You’re going to be there and ready to respond.
Your session description mentions how to keep your best clients happy. There are many different potential definitions for “best client.” How do you think about that before you figure out how to keep them happy?
KARL: Best client is going to be unique to each agency, but typically they’re clients who pay you reasonably for the work you do. Ideally and most often, your best clients are going to be your highest paying clients. Not always. They are profitable within the relationship. If the client is 3% of your revenue, they’re roughly needing 3% of your time, not 10% of your team’s time. That isn’t ideal.
You enjoy working with them. If you see there’s an email from them or a text from them or a call from them, you are hopefully excited to see that they’re reaching out, and your team is also excited. You’re doing work that you can see the impact and the client appreciates the impact. The client is open to new ideas, trying new things that’ll benefit them. The client generally trusts you, trusts the advice you have. That doesn’t mean they would never have any questions, but generally they assume that if you’ve recommended it, it makes sense to explore.
There could be other factors as well. I’ve actually built a spreadsheet for that that I use with my coaching and consulting clients. It’s the client rating or ranking matrix. You put all your clients in and you look at them in terms of a few key criteria. One is, what is their current value (high, medium, or low)? That’ll vary by your client mix. And also, what’s their future potential (high, medium, or low)? That’ll help you decide, is this a client you want to keep as-is? Is this a client you want to try to grow? Or maybe you should assume that you might lose them.
And sometimes, if there’s a client, especially if it’s a lower budget client, that probably won’t grow and you don’t like working with them – probably time to fire them.
ROB: Do you have any way that you suggest firing a client? Because I think that’s one of those things that can probably be a little bit intimidating and feels, to an extent, counterintuitive.
KARL: One of the big drivers is whether you’re firing them because you’ve outgrown them or you’re firing them because there are major dysfunctions. I was talking with a client about this yesterday. They’ve grown; they have a legacy client at $2,500 a month. Their goal for new clients is to be $10,000+, but they had some legacy clients.
They reached out asking if the client wanted to expand their retainer, and the client declined – which made sense based on where their business was. They certainly couldn’t get to $10,000 a month. It seemed like it was time to part ways. My advice to the agency owners that I was speaking with on the call was: frame it as you’ve enjoyed working with them; “Here’s another agency or two that might be a match.”
In that case, I said, “Do you have agencies who would be thrilled to get that $2,500 a month client?” “Yes, agencies that are earlier in their lifecycle, things like that, that my client knows and trusts.” I said, “Offer to introduce them.” Whether there’s a referral fee or not, that’s doing the right thing. Create a smooth transition. Point them somewhere.
There’s a second category, which is that the client is significantly dysfunctional. For instance, I mentioned the client that didn’t renew their retainer but just projects – I really liked my day to day contact. Her boss was kind of terrible. I was on the phone with my day to day contact one day; I made a joke about something. She laughed and she said, “Thanks, I needed that. We don’t laugh much here.” So sad. Her boss was terrible. I could understand the environment. That wasn’t a client that we tried hard to keep. The work was interesting, but not ideal.
But sometimes it’s worse. I had a client in Toronto who had a smaller client who she said was making misogynistic comments to her team. In a coaching call – it actually ended up being an emergency support outreach – she was like, “Can I fire this guy as a client?” I knew the backstory on the client’s size and things like that. It was a smaller client. I hadn’t heard about the employee harassment; that was newer. I’m like, “Yeah, fire him. And you’re under no obligation to help him find another agency based on his behavior.”
So sometimes I think I’m helping people feel more confident in taking action on things they probably know they need to do, but they’re looking for a nudge.
ROB: Sure. A lot of times in the lead chair of an agency, or really any organization, you’re missing that sounding board, so it is good to have that from a coach, from a consultant, from somebody, for sure.
Frequently on this podcast, we talk about lessons learned. It sounds like a lot of your business is defined, almost, by lessons learned and things that you would share. I’d maybe twist the question a little bit and say – normally I say “What have you learned?” I would say, when you prepare for an Ask Me Anything session, I imagine there’s an extent to which you already know some of the lessons you’re going to put back into the audience. So apart from some things we’ve already talked about, what are some of the top questions that you end up fielding and teaching back to the audience in these sessions?
KARL: One is maybe the owner is really good at account management, but they’re like, “How do I get my team to improve at it? They have potential, but what can I do?” There are two things to keep in mind.
One is a concept called warmth and competence. It comes from a book called The Human Brand by Chris Malone, who’s a former Fortune 500 CMO, and Susan Fiske, who’s a psychology professor at Princeton. The idea of warmth and competence – and you can use this to make better decisions – is this: whenever you’re interacting with a person or a company or other organization, you’re thinking about how is the warmth, how is the competence (high, medium, or low)? High competence is you’re getting the job done, you’re delivering as expected, everything is according to the specifications. High warmth is, do you make the person feel special? Do you make them feel that you value them? It’s not just about the money.
You can apply this in your client relationships and also with your team, your employee relationships. If you commit to warmth and competence from The Human Brand as one of your core values, your team can make better decisions. And I talk about this with my team. What’s the warmth and competence solution? If it’s in line with the overall values and it is high warmth and high competence, do it. It makes the decision-making a lot easier, and that helps with client retention.
The second thing to think about is, when you’re delegating client services or account management or delegating more of it, what do you do when a client wants something that isn’t aligned to what you want to give them?
I will be sharing a resource at my Inbound talk, the “Ask Me Anything” on working with clients, which is a couple dozen scripts for different scenarios that may be a difficult conversation. For instance, you have gone over budget and you haven’t warned the client. Or maybe the client wants something that isn’t in scope, but they seem to think it should be.
The solution to that, apart from come to my Inbound session and sign up for the bonus of these scripts for handling difficult clients – and I’m always expanding those; I’ve added several in the past year – is a concept I call Reason, Options, Choose (ROC). The idea there is as a negotiation framework.
A client wants something; you don’t want to do that, or at least not under those terms. You cite a reason. Say they don’t like the price you’ve quoted for something. “We’d love to do that. That is the price for that scope.” But then you give them two to three options that you hand-pick. You might say, “We looked at the lower budget you mentioned. Here’s the smaller scope we could do. Do you want the full price, full scope (Option A)? Do you want the smaller scope, smaller budget (Option B)?” There’s also in that case an implicit Option C, which is client doesn’t want to pay anything – great, we don’t do anything and we work on a client who will pay us for something.
So you give them a reason, you give them two to three hand-picked options, and then you let them choose. You’re not making them choose any specific one, and importantly, they’re not making you do something you don’t want to do. And any of the options are going to be acceptable to your agency because you have hand-picked them. Reason, Options, Choose.
ROB: That seems like one of those things – a lot of these are almost muscles you have to exercise and get comfortable with. It’s not going to be easy. But it seems like once you pattern them and model them, your team would even get used to it and start to think in that same mindset.
KARL: Yes. You want the team to internalize it. Actually, I discovered that in an inside joke way. A client had a birthday coming up and she was really into wine. She was also a big fan of Reason, Options, Choose, and she had told her team about it. So the team decided to make some fake wine labels and put them on wine bottles, and one of the wines the team called “Riesling, Options, Choose.” They included some pairing notes: that it was a bittersweet blend best served with a pep talk from Karl, lots of proofreading, and apparently stress-eating pretzels.
The more your team can make better decisions on your behalf through things like warmth and competence, through Reason, Options, Choose – by understanding your values, by understanding what is important – really, it’s three things. I call it your VGR: your values, goals, and resources. Values on how you operate, goals on where you want to go, and resources in terms of time, money, people, tools to get things done. Your team can make better decisions on your behalf and ultimately find ways so that you can work less and earn more.
ROB: Plenty to digest there. It’s so helpful to have these tools. I talk to my team a lot about – I think especially folks in smaller businesses get a little scared; they’re in a smaller business because they don’t want to be beset by process. But there’s a certain amount of process that exists not to avoid intelligence decisions, but to avoid decision paralysis and inaction. That’s I think where process is so helpful and enabling. You don’t have to decide what you’re going to send.
For example, you get a resume of someone you want to talk to. How do you decide you want to talk to them, and what do you send them when you decide? Or do you want to freelance that every time and get stuck in the mud? These processes are helpful in a lot of ways.
KARL: Absolutely. That also includes making time to think through when to change. You ideally aren’t changing processes every single day so your team’s like, “Is this version 3.6 or version 4.28?” It makes sense to do an annual review, quarterly review. And importantly, get input from your team. Just because you’re thinking about certain priorities and that’s important, your team has some concerns.
Two examples on that. With my grandfather’s consulting years ago – I’m into trains. Turned out he did a consulting project for the New York Central Railroad, and he was interviewing employees about what they liked and didn’t like. An employee was in the switching tower one hot summer day, and my grandfather asked him what he liked and didn’t like about his job. He said, “The biggest problem is it’s really hot. I’ve asked them to put in some window blinds, and they’ve even been out to measure them, but they haven’t put them in.” And he shared about a safety concern. My grandfather asked, “Did you escalate that?” The guy was like, “Why should I? They didn’t care about the window blinds. Why would they care about that?”
An example of a small thing at an agency – I did an anonymous culture survey, which I’ll sometimes do with my consulting clients, asking all the employees about what they liked or didn’t like and a number of other questions. One of the feedback points was about the coffeemaker in the office. Now, the two owners did not drink coffee. They’d heard there were some issues with the coffeemaker, but it wasn’t really a personal problem for them.
But the feedback was that the coffeemaker was always breaking. This was from an employee who was a bigger coffee fan. My advice to the owners was: this is not going to be the most impactful thing you do, but buy a new coffeemaker, and someone will be thrilled.
ROB: Yep. It’s so many of those little things that you don’t even realize, and it’s just such a simple cost, but the intention is where it matters.
ROB: Karl, we’ll look forward to your Ask Me Anything session at Inbound coming up in October. Between now and then, and maybe after, when people want to catch up with you and connect with you and Sakas & Company, where should they go to find you?
KARL: Visit online sakasandcompany.com. I have hundreds of free articles. I have monthly live office hours, answering questions live and free of charge with agency owners all over the world, and also a number of courses and things like that. The latest is Agency PM 101 for people who are stuck as deputized project managers doing PM on top of their existing job and they’d rather not. It doesn’t have to be quite so hard. So that’s Agency PM 101. But also, again, hundreds of free articles and a newsletter that more than one agency owner has said is one of the only emails they read. That’s sakasandcompany.com. Check it out.
ROB: The email newsletter is always worth a try. If you don’t like it, everybody knows how to find the unsubscribe button. Sounds like it’s well worth it to many agency owners. Karl, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. It’s good to draw on your wisdom and share with the audience. Thank you for sharing at Inbound as well.
KARL: Thanks, Rob.
ROB: Take care.
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